It was becoming inevitable that the transportation of choice in America had shifted to a new form of horsepower – the automobile.
Alas, cars often were unreliable, leaving motorists stuck along the road.
Enter the motor club – in particular one that continues to thrive today.
In response to a new cement road – one of the first in Pennsylvania – completed in 1917 between Easton and Bethlehem and the changing transportation technology and the roadside service often required on early cars, the Easton Motor Association was chartered on May 27, 1918. Today, it’s known as AAA Northampton County.
According to an April 1937 article from “Northampton Motorist,” the club’s founders shared a mutual interest in automobiles and the improvement of roads in Northampton County, many of which were dirt and unfit for motorized travel.
“Motor clubs were started to help stranded motorists, back in the day,” said Steve Lindemann, president of AAA Northampton County, whose organization will celebrate its centennial throughout May. “Our service model has greatly changed over the past years, but emergency road service is still the No. 1 reason why people join and renew their membership.”
AAA Northampton County has grown from a handful of members in its early days to nearly 70,000 in a territory drawn from Tinicum Township in northeast Bucks County up Route 611 to Route 412 in Northampton County that encompasses the townships of Lower Saucon (eastern half), Bethlehem, Lower Nazareth, Upper Nazareth and Moore on the western edge and along the New Jersey border north to Monroe County.
Membership in AAA has its privileges, offering members of any local club services at all AAA clubs in the United States and Canada.
“Your membership to your home club is based on your home mailing address,” said Lindemann, whose club plans centennial celebrations this month.
“We have 45 employees and still have a director who worked with us back in the 1950s when we had just three employees.”
After road service, the most popular program among AAA Northampton County members is the Discount and Rewards Program, which was expanded five years ago.
Members can buy discounted gift cards to area restaurants and stores, and tickets to movie theaters and theme parks.
From a quantity of sales, the gift cards are more popular than the attraction tickets, he said, noting that the club sold nearly 8,000 gift cards in December.
TRAVEL BUSINESS, ADVICE
AAA Northampton County’s travel business is still thriving, despite the abundance of online booking services, and still offers maps, tour books and the vintage TripTik, personally customized travel guides that became a staple of road travel long before MapQuest and GPS.
“Obviously, there’s a lot of travel resources available digitally, but the value we provide is having the expertise of travel counselors to guide people around certain things, recommending where they stop, and knowing shortcuts to suggest to people,” Lindemann said.
“They can suggest great stops for gas and restaurant choices, things to guide people to help them make their travel more beneficial, or reminding travelers of important stops along the way that they may not have realized.”
SERVING ITS CUSTOMERS
There’s still demand for the personal touch when sitting down with a knowledgeable travel agent. AAA Northampton County is enjoying a record high for its travel agency in sales, breaking records every year since 2012, Lindemann said.
He attributes it to good customer service.
“They want to make sure they have the expertise of someone who can guide them through their trip to make sure they’re maximizing the experience that’s suited for them,” he said.
“That’s step one. Step two is time. Planning all this stuff on your own takes time. So, it’s nice to turn it over to someone else to do. For our members, time is just as valuable as their money.”
LOVED HER WORK
Customer service has kept Mary Cappadona, 94, with AAA Northampton County since 1950, first as an employee and now as a member of its board of directors.
She started when the club was called the Northampton County Motor Club with a staff of three employees. There were only 5,000 members at the time, she said, noting that many people didn’t even know what a motor club was about.
“I loved my job, I loved the work and I enjoyed helping AAA members and people in general,” she said, recalling her work as secretary and processing titles. She eventually became manager and executive vice president of the organization and oversaw the growth of the club and its services and an expanded employee base.
“Some people get up in the morning and dread going to work. I, on the other hand, loved to get up in the morning and come to work,” she said. “I couldn’t wait to see what the day would bring.”
Longtime board chairman of AAA Northampton County Tom Stitt said he has enjoyed how the club’s services have expanded over the years, from emergency road service to insurance and financial services.
“I see AAA Northampton County continuing to provide quality services that it currently offers within our local community and to look for additional services to offer members in this ever-changing environment, without forgetting where we came from,” said Stitt, who still remembers a snowy Easter morning when his car broke down at a sunrise service and AAA came to his family’s rescue.
“There’s an incentive to remain because of everything that AAA Northampton County offers,” he said.
Other growing areas are travel insurance, which “is bigger than ever before,” Lindemann said, noting that sales of home and auto insurance policies also are breaking records.
A recent and popular service addition is mobile battery service, where a member can call for a technician to test a car battery and charging system at no charge.
If the diagnosis is a dead battery, the technician immediately can sell and install a new one.
“I’m learning not to laugh – anything is possible for the future,” he said.
There’s even a free app that helps a service truck locate a customer in an unfamiliar area and does not require memorization of a membership number for roadside assistance. It also locates the cheapest places to buy gas and lists AAA-approved lodging and dining.
To give back to the community, AAA Northampton County provides rebates for children learning to drive if they take a driver education course. The club also offers a bicycle safety program at no charge to local schools.
The club, to recognize longtime members, freezes dues for anyone who’s been with the club for 50 or more years.
“People are proud of their years of membership,” said Lindemann, a member of AAA since 1987, when his parents bought his first membership when he turned 16.
“We’re an independent not-for-profit corporation,” he said. “That allows us to make decisions that are best for our members and employees.”
AAA Northampton County is governed by a local board of directors and follows the rules set by the national AAA.
“Our goal is to have a product that fits everyone,” Lindemann said, including different levels of membership – basic, plus and premier. Premier was added 10 years ago and offers additional road services.
To mark its 100th anniversary, AAA Northampton County will hold various member appreciation events from May 12-25, including token gifts and raffles.
“Most companies don’t make it 100 years. Those that do, I feel, are limping across the 100-year mark,” Lindemann said. “We are not only making it to 100 years; we’re stronger than ever.”